Friday, November 30, 2012

Thanksgiving (part 2)

Like many couples, Katrina and I were blessed with the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving twice. We spent Thanksgiving day with her family in Seattle, and on Saturday, Christian, Dad, Monica, Brian, Katrina, and I all met at Mom and David’s house for a second feast. My family was also excited about preparing a meal of wild and local foods and our feast looked very similar to our first thanksgiving, with a few exciting exceptions.

For an appetizer, Dad brought a nice mix of nuts that he grew on his property in Ferndale. These included Black, Japanese, and Manchurian Walnuts as well as Hazelnuts.

Our meat dishes included a ham that was raised by a 4-H kid in eastern Washington that Mom and Uncle Joe purchased and divided up. I prepared a venison roast from a large muscle on the rear quarter of the dear that I shot this fall. I don’t know the name of the cut, but years ago Sam taught me how to cook it during his all wild food thanksgivings and since then I have adopted his practice of just calling it a “thanksgiving roast.” If you are careful not to puncture the muscle fascia as you cut out the roast, it will hold its own juices and swell up like a balloon as it cooks. Both the ham and venison were served with cranberry sauce (one of the few commercially available “wild” food products native to North America).

For vegetables we enjoyed some local Brussel Sprouts that David sautéed to perfection and Dad made some delicious Yams that he caramelized with Apples from his property. Katrina and I also prepared Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) acorn bread and Wild Rice (Zizania palustris) pilaf using the same recipes as our first meal.

The dessert menu was diverse and included Monica’s homegrown Pumpkin pie, Apple bread, and my hand-harvested Evergreen and Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum and V. parvifolium) pie.

After dinner we had a nice discussion about the sustainability of different food systems, and I shared my thoughts about why I work so hard to promote wild foods. I believe that wild foods are more sustainable than agricultural foods because (1) they are native, (2) they are adapted to local ecological conditions (not requiring much watering, fertilizing, or pest control), and (3) they require relatively little disturbance. If we compare a managed corn field to a managed camas prairie, we might notice that they corn field requires the total destruction of a native ecosystem to clear the land, annual soil disturbance to maintain the crop, and huge inputs of fossil fuel derived fertilizers, pesticides to ensure a productive harvest. If the farmers are doing everything right, they are growing ONLY corn. A camas meadow, on the other hand, is a native ecosystem, requires no watering, no fertilizing, no pesticides, and yields a myriad of edible foods including half a dozen edible roots, a few greens, one or two nuts, Deer, Elk, and more. 

People often argue that the size of the human population necessitates the consumption of agricultural foods because domesticated foods are so much more productive than wild foods. While this sounds logical at first glance, I believe that the jury is still out on the matter. It is true that corn may be more productive than Camas itself, but I don’t know of any study that compares the total productive capacity of a managed wild food producing ecosystem to that of an agricultural system (especially one that is not dependent on fossil fuel derived inputs). I like to think of the comparison in terms of geometry. Farmers do an excellent job of packing a plethora of plants into an acre of land. However, they are limited by the annual nature of agricultural plants to a productive biosphere of at most 10 feet or so (from the bottom of the roots to the tips of the corn stalks). By comparison, the often perennial nature of wild food ecosystems allow native plant cultivators to take advantage of more vertical complexity giving them a much taller productive biosphere, that is often upwards of 100 feet from root to tree top.

It doesn’t stop there; when comparing wild foods and agriculture on a landscape level, wild foods really shine. In the Pacific Northwest, arable land is restricted to the lower floodplain deltas that range from sea level (with the aid of dikes) to a couple thousand feet above sea level. By contrast, wild food landscapes (and seascapes) include almost every ecosystem from as deep as a halibut can dive to as high as a mountain goat can climb. There are millions of acres of land that are unfit for the plow yet abundantly produce tasty food.

Thanksgiving is about honoring food through feasting. I believe that in order to honor any particular food, we need to understand its natural and social history. Ultimately, we are able to give the highest praise to those foods in which we ourselves assumed the responsibility of harvesting from the land and sharing with others in a respectful and selfless manner. Thanksgiving is therefore essentialized by the relationships we have with plants and animals, with our family and community, and with the land.
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